Many smart speaker owners wonder if their private conversations are being recorded by the virtual personal assistant on their devices. According to Seattle television station KIRO, a private conversation between a woman identified only as Danielle, and her husband, was secretly recorded by the Alexa digital assistant on their Echo devices, and sent to a person who was on the family's contacts list.The recording took place inside the family's home in Portland, Oregon.
Danielle and her husband realized what happened when one of the husband's employees, who lives 176 miles away in Seattle, called on the phone to tell them that he had received audio files of their conversations. The employee knew that the couple had been talking about hardwood floors. Danielle had some of the audio files that her Echo had recorded played back for her and said, "I felt invaded. A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, 'I'm never plugging that device in again, because I can't trust it.'" She called Amazon who sent an Alexa engineer to investigate. He discovered that the logs confirmed everything that the couple had complained about, and he apologized profusely.
Amazon later gave an explanation. The company said that the virtual assistant thought that the hotword Alexa was said, and that activated the digital helper. During the conversation between Danielle and her husband, Alexa mistakenly heard the request to "send message." After asking "to Whom?" should the message be sent, more background conversation was interpreted as a name in the family contacts list. Alexa then tried to confirm the name of the person receiving the message, and turned background conversation into an approval to send it. Even Amazon agrees that this was an unlikely chain of events, but says it is working on ways to make it even more unlikely to repeat.
The family had an Echo in every room and was using them to control their lights and appliances. Amazon offered to fix Alexa so that it could be used only to enable and disable the appliances in the family's smart home, but that offer was declined. Instead, Danielle has unplugged all of the Echo units in the home and wants to return them to Amazon for a refund.